Combine uncertainty about the economy with post-pandemic reflections on how we value and spend our time and money, and you have the conditions for membership recruitment and retention challenges. But one thing is certain: professionals who want to get ahead, or even just maintain their positions, must keep learning and enhancing their skills and knowledge. How can your association help people with their professional challenges while solving your own membership challenges?
The 2022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General, Inc. (MGI) has the answer. Its survey findings show how professional development programs can make a positive impact on member recruitment, engagement, and retention goals.
How to deliver value by leveraging professional development’s role in membership
Let’s look at the areas where professional development can help increase member recruitment, engagement, and retention.
Member recruitment channel
Networking is still by far the #1 reason members join an association, according to 63% of MGI’s survey participants. To meet this desire, provide networking opportunities throughout the year with online educational events and programs, like discussion groups, interactive webinars, and synchronous online courses. Mimic the success of for-profit education providers by offering online cohort courses. These programs give small groups the opportunity to learn and grow together.
The #2 reason for joining (36%) is continuing education and certification. The spread between the top two reasons is closer for individual membership organizations with networking at 56% and education/certification at 51%. Trade association members may not join for education (only 19% believe they do) but you can engage and provide value to company members with a corporate learning portal or subscription.
Association events and meetings are the second most effective channel for recruiting members. Yet nearly a quarter of MGI participants said their biggest internal challenge to growing membership is identifying and contacting prospects.
Non-member attendees and learners are naturally warm membership leads. Put them into automated membership marketing campaigns. If they don’t convert, find out why. Since many employers won’t pay for membership, but will pay for education, non-member attendees are excellent prospects for a learning subscription.
To expand your education audience, market your programs beyond members by using retargeting, social and search advertising, guest appearances on or sponsorship of industry podcasts, and search engine optimization of your website and blog posts.
Occasionally, send out brief surveys to learners and attendees to find out about their interests, needs, and career stage so you can promote relevant programs and membership benefits to them. Encourage their survey participation by offering a promo code for an upcoming program.
Member engagement in professional development
During the past year, 73% of associations increased their online professional development opportunities. For most of 2021, they had no other choice. But how many will continue to offer virtual conferences, courses, workshops, and roundtables? How many will ignore the audiences they attracted during the pandemic and the preferences of busy members?
Member attendance continued to increase at both webinars and virtual professional development meetings last year for 66% of associations. 60% of associations saw an increase in participation in their public social networks. This rise in social networking reflects a craving for conversation and connection, a desire that has always been there, but is even more of a priority for people who work remotely. Build opportunities for conversations into all educational events and programs. At the minimum, provide a chat box, but breakout rooms where people can see each other are even better.
Last year, career services were in higher demand, according to 55% of associations, up from 37% in 2021. This increase makes sense during the Great Resignation. Nurture membership prospects by introducing them to your career resources and programs. Promote self-assessments, skills training (particularly in-demand soft skills), and—since a new set of management skills is required now—remote/hybrid work certificate programs for professionals and managers.
Attendance at the virtual annual conference/trade show increased for 51%, but fewer associations hosted a virtual annual conference last year: 51% virtual, 24% hybrid, and 17% in-person only. The news gets worse for virtual conferences: associations hosting virtual-only events are more likely to report declines in overall membership. This isn’t so surprising, since many virtual events are poorly designed and not meeting the networking needs of attendees.
Relevance to young professionals
The younger an association’s membership, the better they’re doing. MGI said, “Associations reporting increases in their five-year membership levels are significantly more likely to report higher ratios of Millennials and Generation X members. In contrast, those reporting declines have a considerably higher proportion of Baby Boomer members.”
The #4 internal challenge to growing membership is attracting and retaining younger members. Which members are advising you on marketing, programming, and resource allocation decisions? Mostly Boomers and older Gen X? You don’t want your association to remain stuck in the past and become irrelevant to future industry leaders. A shadow board or advisory group of young professionals can provide insight on effective marketing and programming for their peers.
Help young professionals start moving in the right direction and feeling a sense of progress in their career development. Offer early-career learning pathways and credentials.
Associations reporting membership increases in the past year are significantly more likely to have a process in place to support and encourage innovative ideas. Where do your programming ideas come from? How receptive are you to ideas from outside the usual suspects—the board, committee members, former volunteer leaders, and staff in senior roles? Are ‘outsider’ members and staff encouraged to provide feedback and suggestions?
You’ll lose the relevance race if your association doesn’t have an agile culture and processes. You must be able to quickly respond to economic and industry developments with relevant educational programs. Do you have relationships with instructional designers or do you have instructional designers on staff? Have you piloted programs before? Do you have a process in place for ongoing needs assessments of different market segments?
Membership value and retention
The top reason members don’t renew is a lack of engagement with the organization (52%). Receiving blast informational and promotional emails is not engagement. These members either found nothing of value (or worth their dues investment) or couldn’t find their way to valuable benefits and experiences.
Professional development can play an effective role in member engagement, but you must introduce people to programs that are relevant, affordable, and fit into their schedule. Asynchronous programs are convenient, but not the best social experience. A mixture of live and on-demand instruction is the best of all worlds, so consider how you can offer a live social element to asynchronous learners, perhaps by giving them access to relevant live meetups and programs while they’re taking the course.
Lack of value (34%) and “too expensive” (22%) were the other top reasons for not renewing. These are value issues; membership wouldn’t be too expensive if the member engaged in valuable experiences.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the biggest internal challenge to growing membership (40%) is communicating value or benefits. In membership marketing materials, always talk about the impact, not the features, of membership. Ask members for testimonials about the impact of different benefits and programs on their professional and personal lives.
The Great Resignation’s impact has already been felt by MGI survey respondents: 33% said their members didn’t renew because they left the field, industry, or profession, or because they retired (22%). A quarter of associations said members didn’t renew because the employer wouldn’t pay for dues. Remember, membership doesn’t have to be the only option; you can also offer learning subscriptions.
You might always have members who renew year after year because they or their employer is willing and able to pay the dues. But you can’t take any members for granted. After the pandemic, the value question is becoming more challenging for associations as members (and their employers) question everything. Earn their loyalty by offering enough membership ROI for their professional development or marketing budget—and your educational programs can help.